By Whit Canning
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In a season defined down to the last decimal by computer rankings, there remains at least one schizoid creature about which modern science has no clue:
The dreaded juggernaut that lives by the fumble.
That, of course, would be third-ranked Nebraska, which will face Texas for the Big 12 championship tomorrow in the Alamodome.
The Cornhuskers are 10-1, average more than 35 points per game, rank in the top seven nationally in four major defensive categories, boast at least two All-Americans and a Big 12 co-Offensive Player of the Year, flattened undefeated Kansas State to secure the meaningful portion of the North Division co-title, and are heavy favorites to avenge their only defeat of the season against the Longhorns.
They have also fumbled 47 times, losing 23.
If anyone is searching for the national leader in those categories, look no further.
It is a phenomenon that has confounded the best minds in Cornhuskers football, and head coach Frank Solich is prepared to announce that there is no known cause, nor antidote. Solich is still taking flak for calling an option pitch after a fumble recovery at the Colorado 16 a week ago with less than two minutes remaining in a deadlocked game. The Cornhuskers promptly fumbled it back to the Buffs, and it nearly cost them the game and the berth in the Big 12 championship game. They were saved by a missed Colorado field goal and eventually won in overtime.
"Ball technique has been stressed in this program for years," said Solich, who conceded that the pitch was probably the wrong call when his team was already in position for a winning field goal attempt. "We're doing everything we can, but we can't find a cause. We're trying to approach it from a positive standpoint and go in with the belief that we don't leave the ball on the ground.
"But we lead the nation in fumbles, and we've probably set a record. We've looked at it from every angle, and there just isn't much talking left to do."
That's what you think, Frank.
"Yeah, I know there's been a lot of talk about it; that's the main problem," said I-back Dan Alexander, who fumbled the aforementioned pitch and wound up thinking, "We're going to lose, and it's my fault," despite rushing for 180 yards and scoring three times. He redeemed himself with a 10-yard run to the Colorado 1-yard line in overtime to set up the winning score.
"We've had some problems with it all season," Alexander said, "but it really wasn't bad until people started complaining about it. Once it became an issue, it just got worse.
"It's a mental thing; the more people talked about it, the more we fumbled. What we need is for everybody to shut up about the fumbles and focus on the fact that we have a 10-1 football team playing for a championship."
Oddly, there might be a scientific breakthrough here: In the past two games, Nebraska has fumbled 18 times, losing eight.
"Yeah, but so what?" Alexander replies. "We fumbled 10 times against Kansas State, but look what we did to them [a 41-15 victory]. These are supposed to be our loyal fans. They're supposed to be supporting us -- not sniping at us.
"We cast ourselves as a team that will mix the option with running right at you, and playing power football. We have to be able to run hard, with abandon, to be daring. We can't worry constantly about just hanging onto the ball."
You will forgive Dan this outburst, Huskers fans; he's a spirited youth, but rest assured, he and the staff appreciate your efforts at assistance and were deeply touched to receive the gloves and glue you've sent through the mail.
They have read with pride the recent missives dispatched to the local newspapers, in which you pronounced yourselves utterly charmed by (a) the team's ability to fumble at will, (b) Solich's play-calling, and (c) the performance of the `Blackshirt' defense during a fourth-quarter Colorado rally.
* "I'm more afraid of Frank Solich's play-calling than I am of the Texas Longhorns."
* "Is there some NCAA rule against teaching a running back to hold onto the ball with two hands instead of waving it around like a flag? If there isn't, that might be a drill to work on before we make fools of ourselves this week against Texas -- again!"
* "Whatever you do, don't pitch the ball. You will drop it."
* "I was wondering if it would be a major crime for [quarterbacks coach] Turner Gill or someone else to call the offensive plays rather than the way they're being called now?"
* "Blackshirt defense? Te-hee, ha-ha, ho-ho, hardy har har!"
But as Alexander says, it's a 10-1 team. And Texas coach Mack Brown points to a historical precedent: Barry Switzer's Oklahoma teams, on which he was once the offensive coordinator. In the days of the speed-oriented wishbone, the Sooners on the option resembled NASCAR drivers flipping cigarette butts at each other on the curve. They could fumble 11 times and score 72 points.
"We used to joke each week that we were making a mockery of the old stat that the team with the least turnovers wins," Brown said. "Nebraska's is a different offense, but they're so aggressive that they can make the plays to overcome the turnovers."
But while the Cornhuskers, like the old Sooners, frequently retain possession on option-pitch fumbles that go out of bounds, the greater concern is the number of fumbles Nebraska backs -- sometimes stripped by defenders -- have sprayed around the middle of the field.
Texas' Casey Hampton, who recovered one of these at a crucial moment at the Longhorns' 1-yard line and forced two others in a 24-20 victory, notes that a defensive trend might be part of the cause.
"With a team that fumbles as much as they do," he said, "you just know they're gonna put it on the ground. So, you sort of do what you can to help them."
Whit Canning, (817) 390-7760
Nebraska football coach Frank Solich is receiving plenty of suggestions from fans about curing his team's fumblitis:
* "Whatever you do, don't pitch the ball!"
* "Is there some NCAA rule against teaching a running back to hold onto the ball with two hands before waving it around like a flag?"
* "Have someone else call the plays."(outsiders should know anyone calling plays for the Big Red pales in comparison to Tom Osborne).